Until the eve of war on Iraq, the Government had assumed it needed a specific United Nations mandate to authorise military action, Sir Andrew Turnbull, the Cabinet Secretary, revealed yesterday.
Britain's most senior civil servant admitted there was no "plan B" beyond a fresh UN resolution, and Downing Street changed its stance only when it became clear no diplomatic agreement was likely.
Sir Andrew said Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, was asked to decide whether an invasion was "still legal" without a further UN mandate. He also raised the possibility that the Attorney General's full legal advice may yet be passed to Parliament's watchdog.
Sir Andrew, appearing before the Commons Public Administration Select Committee, insisted it was his idea to send a letter to Clare Short warning of possible prosecution for revealing Government secrets.
He also rejected charges that he had been "the invisible man" in Downing Street's handling of Dr David Kelly, but conceded that the Government could learn lessons from criticism of its controversial dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. In a two-and-half hour evidence session, Sir Andrew became the first Whitehall official to admit Tony Blair was advised weeks before the war that he needed a further UN resolution for legal authority.
"This was a moving situation because for a long time we were thinking this might have been authorised by a specific UN resolution, in a way because it would have been clear cut," he told MPs. "We worked hard to get it and worked on the assumption that we probably would. I'm not aware of a plan B. It only became apparent when that resolution was not forthcoming that advice was needed."
Mr Blair has said that it was only on 10 March, when President Jacques Chirac said he may veto a new UN resolution, that it was clear no further progress could be made.
Sir Andrew's remarks backed claims in the New Statesman magazine yesterday that Lord Goldsmith had advised Mr Blair he would prefer a further UN mandate even after UN resolution 1441 was passed in November 2002.
Resolution 1441 gave Saddam Hussein a last chance to comply with disarmament obligations but made clear that no further action could be taken without the approval of the UN. A further resolution would make Britain's position "absolutely watertight".
Sir Andrew denied he had been "worried" about the lack of legal cover, but conceded that he and Admiral Boyce, the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), depended on legal cover for their staff. "I was aware of the fact that I on behalf of the Civil Service and the CDS on behalf of the Armed Forces needed the assurance that what was being done was legal," he said.
He revealed that assurance of the war's legality came only when the Attorney General gave a summary of his advice on 17 March, three days before the UK-US invasion began.
Sir Andrew said there were "discussions" going on with Anne Abraham, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, about whether Lord Goldsmith's opinion could be released.Reuse content